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Caps Rally To Defeat Florida, 4-2

Posted on 06 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

On Hockey Fights Cancer night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals rallied from a 2-1 third period deficit to knock off the Florida Panthers, 4-2. Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, and Lars Eller all scored in a span of less than five minutes midway through the final frame after Reilly Smith went around Matt Niskanen on a power play to give the Cats the lead just 2:32 into period three.

The come from behind victory improves the Caps to 8-2-1 on the season.

This game really should not have been close since the Capitals really dominated Florida in terms of shot attempts (64-46) and scoring chances. Washington missed the net on several good looks and Roberto Luongo (32 saves) was sensational in the middle frame when the Caps out shot the Panthers, 18-4. Most notably, Luongo made a sick glove save on a rebound attempt on the doorstep from Nicklas Backstrom after an Ovechkin shot.

Coach Barry Trotz’ crew played a so-so first period, but trailed when Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t tie up Jared McCann in front of the net just over five minutes into the game. McCann’s deflection got by Braden Holtby (22 saves) for his first tally of the season.

Washington would finally tie the game at 10:42 of the middle stanza when Ovechkin fed Oshie perfectly on a two on one break and #77 beat Bobby Lu with some nice top shelf cheese.

The turning point in the game came, however, with 13:19 left in regulation when the Holtbeast made a huge save on Shane Harper in the slot on a quality scoring chance. If Harper scores there, it’s a three to one tilt, but Braden showed why he’s one of the best goalies in the world and although he didn’t have a ton of work in this one, he made another clutch stop when his team needed it most.

From there, Ovi had his sensational deflection goal after he, Justin Williams, Backstrom, Nate Schmidt, and Brooks Orpik turned in a great hustle and cycle shift. Orpik and Williams both looked like they found the fountain of youth on that sequence and the Gr8 showed why he is the best goal scorer on the planet by finding space in front of Luongo, who was super hot up until that point.

Just over two minutes later, Michael Matheson, who was unable to tie up Ovechkin on his game tying tally, was totally out worked by Oshie at the offensive blue line. T.J. once again won another puck battle and taking this one gave him a clear path to the cage with speed from the right wing wall. Luongo probably wished he was cracking his usual stellar jokes on Twitter, at that point, as Oshie again skated in and beat him top shelf. All Verizon Center fans should’ve received a free container of JIF after that beauty of a play and shot.

The Caps were not done crashing the cage, however, and Eller’s goal to seal the deal came when John Carlson’s blast was deflected down by #20 and he beat Luongo easily once the biscuit hit the ice. Bobby Lu was probably wondering where his support was in that situation because Tom Wilson was also parked all alone a few feet from Eller.

So that’s three key goals on hard work and smart hockey, which entails getting pucks and bodies to the cage. Through 11 games we’ve seen quite a few tallies like that by Washington and doing so has them living up to the “Will Over Skill” tee-shirts they all received in training camp this September.

Many of the goals they’ve been getting recently are very playoff-esque in their nature. The Caps aren’t winning just via pretty passing plays and one timers and that’s encouraging.

On the back end, the Schmidt-Oprik pair was very good and both players had their legs going. Orpik was +1 in 15:42 and earned the game’s third star.

This was a solid home win by the Capitals, who have now won five straight games. Florida was missing notorious Cap-killer, Jonathan Huberdeau, as well Nick Bjugstad. In addition, former fire sale Capital Jaromir Jagr left the contest after only five shifts. Hmmm, aren’t there NFL games tomorrow? Perhaps the old man hadn’t gotten his wagers in yet for Sunday’s tilts and decided he needed to do so, pronto??!!

In any event, Washington had superior talent to Florida on Saturday night and by continuing to work hard, they wore out the Panthers, who ultimately badly wilted over the last 15 minutes.

Notes: This was the first time all season that the Caps have trailed after the first period…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 23:59. Ovechkin logged 19:28 as the Caps went 0 for 4 on the power play in 7:31 of time. They did have numerous good looks, though, the puck just wasn’t going in…Florida was 1 for 2 with the man advantage, so the Caps lost the special teams battle (-1), but still found a way to victory…Washington won the face-off battle, 37-30. Eller was 8-3…I thought that was the best game of the season for Williams, he was moving his feet and forcing turnovers…the Gr8 was +3…next up for the Capitals are the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night at 7 pm at the Verizon Center. The Sharks were 2-0 against Washington last season. It’s a good night to come out and see the Caps take on last season’s Western Conference champs, who still have “The Big Cheese,” Joel Ward, and avoid the stupid election coverage.

 

 

 

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Twelve Ravens thoughts on preseason win over Carolina

Posted on 12 August 2016 by Luke Jones

With the Ravens kicking off the preseason with a 22-19 win over Carolina, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Terrance West and Buck Allen combined for three touchdowns, but I was most impressed with the quickness of Kenneth Dixon, who ran for a game-high 44 yards on nine carries. He has the potential to be a home-run hitter as a change-of-pace back, which is something the Ravens need.

2. With Jerraud Powers and Kyle Arrington both struggling, I’d like to see Tavon Young and Terrence Brooks get more opportunities at the nickel. Young played sparingly, but he has shown good ball skills in practices. Brooks’ size is an intriguing option there, especially since Baltimore’s starting safeties are undersized.

3. First-round rookie Ronnie Stanley performed well in his first start, and Harbaugh made a point to praise the young left tackle’s strong desire to play despite suffering a recent injury. I wonder if that was a coincidence after ex-Raven Eugene Monroe started just 17 games over the last two years.

4. The Kaelin Clay muffed punt and John Harbaugh’s post-game comments lead you to believe the 2016 punt returner may not be on the current roster. The Ravens were right to cut Jacoby Jones two offseasons ago, but they’ve surely had their problems replacing him.

5. After a fast start to camp, Kamalei Correa had a relatively quiet night, failing to record a statistic in 21 defensive snaps. He appeared to play exclusively as an edge defender, making you wonder if Zach Orr has a bigger lead in the inside linebacker competition than we thought.

6. Entering his sixth year, linebacker Chris Carter was facing second- and third-team offensive linemen, but he showed impressive quickness off the edge and also made plays at inside linebacker. Versatility and his special-teams ability will help in his bid to win a job.

7. Speaking of edge defenders, Victor Ochi has flashed potential on more than one occasion during camp, but the rookie free agent only saw the field for seven snaps. That makes you wonder if the Ravens are trying to hide him in an effort to sneak him onto the practice squad.

8. Starting in place of Marshal Yanda, Vlad Ducasse may have been the Ravens’ most impressive offensive lineman, making terrific blocks on Dixon’s 19-yard run and Allen’s 19-yard touchdown catch. He’s not a sure bet to make the roster, but he has made 22 starts in six NFL seasons.

9. The Ravens only suited up five receivers, making it concerning that Keenan Reynolds wasn’t targeted once despite playing 29 offensive snaps. Everyone is rooting for the former Navy standout, but he remains a work in progress with a long way to go as both a punt returner and receiver.

10. Built similarly to Brandon Williams, rookie nose tackle Michael Pierce showed impressive push inside to collect three tackles and split a sack with Carter. Making the 53-man roster might appear to be a tall order, but the Samford product has definitely turned some heads.

11. After calling plays from the upstairs booth the last few seasons, defensive coordinator Dean Pees was on the sideline during Thursday’s game. It will be interesting to hear his rationale for the change and whether it will carry over to the regular season.

12. The fans’ reaction to Michael Phelps winning his 22nd Olympic gold medal on Thursday night was hardly surprising, but the enthusiasm shown by players watching the replay of the race on the video board was a memorable moment late in a pedestrian preseason game.

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Young Ravens flash some potential in mundane preseason opener

Posted on 12 August 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — With so many key veterans not even suited up, there wasn’t much to take away from the Ravens’ 22-19 win over Carolina to begin the preseason.

There was some good, some bad, and plenty of “meh” over the course of the night, which is what you expect in the first preseason game when starters might not make as much as a cameo appearance. But head coach John Harbaugh made it clear earlier in the week that he wanted to see something from his younger players after a 5-11 season in which nine different losses were decided by one possession.

He was looking for some game-changing plays.

“You just don’t know until you see something happen,” Harbaugh said. “Now [that] we have this game behind us, we can watch the tape and have a sense of, ‘OK, this is kind of our beginning, this is where we start.’ Some of these young guys, we drafted them for a reason, and I think they showed up tonight. But they have to keep getting better if they’re going to win games in the National Football League against top-flight guys.”

A few players flashed that ability despite the Ravens having just one play of 20 or more yards, a 29-yard completion from No. 3 quarterback Josh Johnson to tight end Nick Boyle in the third quarter.

Starting at rush linebacker in place of Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith provided the first game-changing play of the night when he blew past reserve tackle Daryl Williams to sack and strip Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson, allowing defensive tackle Carl Davis to recover the fumble deep in Carolina territory. The Ravens offense would give the ball right back to Carolina a few plays later, but creating turnovers has been a bigger point of emphasis than normal this year after the defense had just 14 takeaways in 2015, the lowest single-season total in franchise history.

With Suggs and Elvis Dumervil each on the wrong side of 30, Smith developing into an impact pass rusher would go a long way in helping the Baltimore defense. It was also encouraging to see draft picks Matt Judon and Willie Henry be disruptive in their first preseason action.

On the offensive side of the ball, a trio of young running backs showcased their potential with Terrance West rushing for two touchdowns, Buck Allen catching a 19-yard score, and lightning-quick rookie Kenneth Dixon carrying nine times for 44 yards and picking up the longest run of the night, a 19-yard sprint behind superb blocks from John Urschel and Vlad Ducasse. West’s 25 yards on nine carries didn’t look like much on paper, but the jump cut he displayed to move the chains on a third-and-2 run in the first quarter and his acceleration while changing direction on a 2-yard touchdown in the third quarter reinforced the improvement he’s shown in practices this summer.

Those offerings were probably enough to make starter Justin Forsett eager to get back on the field after he was among the veterans to receive the night off on Thursday. With the Ravens coming off the most disappointing season of the Harbaugh era, that kind of competition is a good thing.

“I’m just trying to win [over] every guy in that building and show the Ravens [organization] that they can count on me,” West said. “Accountability. I am just trying to come out here and work hard and show these guys that they can depend on me.”

Of course, there was much not to like on Thursday, ranging from the lackluster performance of the secondary to shaky special teams. Veterans Jerraud Powers and Kyle Arrington did nothing to quell concerns about the nickel cornerback job while Kaelin Clay’s muffed punt reflected how unimpressive the return specialist competition has been.

The Ravens remain a work in progress, but a team needing some young players to step forward saw a few flashes of promise in an otherwise mundane preseason game.

“Those are the plays that win you games, the game-changing-type plays,” said safety Eric Weddle of Smith’s strip sack in the opening quarter. “You can watch the film. There’s 60, 70 snaps, [and] there will be four or five plays. You either make them and you win the game or you don’t and the other team does and they win. We want to be on the right side of that and win a bunch of games.”

After being on the wrong side all last year, Baltimore is hoping to flip the script in 2016.

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Ravens-Panthers preseason primer: Five players to watch

Posted on 10 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Thursday will feel familiar as the Ravens begin the preseason against the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers.

With Joe Flacco and other veterans not expected to play, the game will resemble the end of last season with backup quarterback Ryan Mallett and other young players factoring heavily into the action immediately. Of course, the Ravens don’t mind that reality as much right now with the start of the regular season still a month away.

“It’s going to be the young guys,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be the guys that need to play in this game that we want to find out about. Anybody that has a health issue or anything like that is not even going to be thinking about playing. It’s just going to be one of those kinds of camp games that we learn about our young guys.”

Coming off a 5-11 season and their worst campaign in nearly a decade, the Ravens are feeling more urgency in this year’s preseason for obvious reasons. Wins and losses in the summer may not have a strong bearing on how a team will fare in the regular season, but a 1-3 preseason last year was a reflection of how little depth the Ravens had in 2015, a weakness that was painfully exposed as injuries piled up.

With the likes of Steve Smith, Terrell Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil still working their way back to full health, the Ravens want to see young players seize opportunities and make names for themselves on a roster clearly in transition. As much as the discussion has centered around older players on this roster, young play-makers must emerge to help facilitate Baltimore’s return to contender status in 2016 and beyond.

“I can’t wait to see how this shakes out on Thursday, but also for the next three weeks seeing who the guys are,” Harbaugh said. “I’m looking for the guys to make plays. Who is going to make the plays? That’s it. We have a bunch of guys with potential who are definitely talented enough to do it.

“The best guy is going to make it. The roster is way too tight for anybody to be a project right now; it’s going to be [about] guys making plays.”

Thursday marks the seventh time these teams have met in the preseason with the Ravens holding the 4-2 edge over the Panthers. Baltimore has compiled a 20-12 record in preseason games under Harbaugh.

Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report

The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Thursday night’s game against Carolina.

Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will remain in question. Of course, this list does not consider any veteran players — like Flacco — who will be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.

Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:

OUT: WR Steve Smith (Achilles), LB Terrell Suggs (Achilles), LB Elvis Dumervil (foot), WR Breshad Perriman (knee), RB Lorenzo Taliaferro (foot), WR Chris Moore (foot), TE Crockett Gillmore (hamstring), DE Bronson Kaufusi (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: TE Dennis Pitta (finger/hip), WR Chris Matthews (“soft tissue” injury), CB Maurice Canady (undisclosed)
QUESTIONABLE: DT Timmy Jernigan (ribs), OT Ronnie Stanley (“soft tissue” injury), WR Michael Campanaro (unspecified strains), TE Maxx Williams (undisclosed)
PROBABLE: QB Joe Flacco (knee), RB Kenneth Dixon (knee), TE Daniel Brown (jaw), CB Jimmy Smith (foot)

Five players to watch Thursday night

RB Terrance West

Much focus has been placed on the number of absences in the first two weeks of training camp, but West has arguably been the early star of the summer, looking lighter and more explosive than he did last season when he rushed for 180 yards on 46 carries in six games with the Ravens. Coaches have been pleased with West’s work ethic as he’s shown improved field vision and is better in pass protection. His performance to this point has likely dismissed pre-camp predictions that he would be on the roster bubble, but carrying over that success to preseason games would put West in the conversation to start.

LB Kamalei Correa

The rookie second-round pick has brought athleticism and an edge to a group of Ravens linebackers that’s been practicing without Suggs and Dumervil. Until recently, he looked like the clear favorite to start at the weak-side inside linebacker spot next to C.J. Mosley, but third-year linebacker Zach Orr is also competing for the job and has taken more starter reps over the last few practices. Regardless of how that battle shakes out, Correa will see plenty of action inside and as an edge defender in sub packages. If his practice performance translates to the preseason, his No. 51 will be called frequently on Thursday.

OT Alex Lewis

With first-round pick Ronnie Stanley’s status for Thursday in question after he suffered a minor injury last weekend, the Ravens may start Lewis at left tackle after selecting him in the fourth round of April’s draft. Baltimore appears comfortable with Stanley handling the job as a rookie, but it’s clear that an upgrade is needed from top reserve James Hurst, who has been practicing more extensively at guard in recent practices. If Lewis can hold up to some reasonable degree against a tough Carolina front, the Ravens would feel a lot better about the prospects of him being Stanley’s primary backup in 2016.

LB Za’Darius Smith

He hasn’t received a ton of press, but Smith could be one of the biggest keys for the Ravens defense in 2016. With Suggs turning 34 in October and coming off an Achilles injury and Dumervil better suited for a situational role, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Smith becoming an impact player would quell the many concerns about the pass rush. He’s primarily been working at Suggs’ rush linebacker spot, but he has improved at setting the edge, making you wonder if he could step into a hybrid role with responsibilities formerly held by Courtney Upshaw and Pernell McPhee. This defense would be a lot better if he can.

WR Jeremy Butler

Butler is rarely mentioned while other young receivers are frequently discussed, but he has stacked quality practices after catching 31 passes for 363 yards in eight games last year. Though more of a possession receiver, the 6-foot-2 Butler makes catches in traffic and has managed to stay on the field while the likes of Michael Campanaro, Chris Moore, Chris Matthews, and Breshad Perriman have missed time with injuries. Butler may lack the upside of some of the aforementioned names, but there’s something to be said about being able to stay on the field and produce when jobs are clearly up for grabs.

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Ravens-related thoughts on Super Bowl 50

Posted on 08 February 2016 by Luke Jones

You couldn’t help but notice parallels between Peyton Manning’s improbable run to a win in Super Bowl 50 and Ray Lewis finishing his “last ride” with a championship in New Orleans three years ago.

The future Hall of Famers both missed substantial time with injuries in the regular season before returning in time for the playoffs. Each made important contributions on the playoff path to the Super Bowl as Lewis averaged just under 15 tackles per game in the first three rounds of the 2012 postseason and Manning threw for 222 yards against Pittsburgh — overcoming a number of dropped passes — and had two touchdown passes against New England in the AFC championship game.

But as much as we might have enjoyed seeing two of the greatest players in NFL history go out on top, it was apparent that each needed to retire after watching them play in the Super Bowl. While we remember Joe Flacco earning Super Bowl XLVII MVP honors, we try to forget Lewis looking slow and hopeless covering San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis or chasing after 49ers running back Frank Gore in that game.

Like the great Ravens linebacker against the 49ers, Manning had little to do with Denver winning its third Super Bowl title as the Broncos defense suffocated Carolina on Sunday night. Perhaps the 39-year-old Manning was owed one by the football gods after playing with some less-than-stellar defenses over the years in the same way that Lewis had some of his best years wasted by ineptitude on the other side of the ball.

If you’re a Ravens fan struggling to be happy for the quarterback who twice broke Baltimore’s heart in the playoffs — including the 2006 postseason defeat that was the most devastating home loss in franchise history — don’t forget his touching gesture in the playoffs three years ago. More than an hour after the Ravens had defeated the Broncos in an epic double-overtime contest in the divisional round, Manning and his family waited in the Baltimore locker room to congratulate Lewis personally.

Despite dealing with one of the most disappointing losses of his storied career, Manning still wanted to offer his respect to Lewis after the last of their many entertaining chess matches over the years.

It doesn’t matter if Manning — or Lewis — was no longer the same player when tasting championship glory for a final time. Seeing one of the all-time greats exit that way is special and rare.

Let’s just hope Manning actually retires now as most people expect.

Miller time

Four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller already had a résumé impressive enough to land a lucrative contract this offseason, but the Super Bowl 50 MVP took his performance to another level in the postseason.

Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, the 26-year-old had a combined five sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception in the AFC championship game and Super Bowl. That’s the kind of timing that Flacco can appreciate after the Ravens quarterback threw for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the 2012 postseason to fetch a six-year, $120.6 million contract a few weeks later.

ESPN has already reported that Denver will use the franchise tag if a long-term deal isn’t reached, meaning Ravens fans should stop dreaming about Miller reuniting with Elvis Dumervil in Baltimore.

Kubiak turns to dark side

Former Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak did a masterful job of handling a difficult quarterback situation this season.

Leading 16-10 and facing a third-and-9 from his own 26 with less than six minutes remaining, the Broncos head coach didn’t allow Manning to even attempt a pass and ran the ball with C.J. Anderson before punting. It was both the right decision and a clear sign that Manning needs to retire.

Possessing a championship defense, the offensive-minded Kubiak turned to the “dark side” in a way reminiscent of how Brian Billick handled the 2000 Ravens by deferring to his defense and being conservative. The difference is that it was much easier to do such a thing with Trent Dilfer than with one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

Stewart shines

Darian Stewart was a nondescript performer in his lone year with the Ravens, but the Denver safety stood out in the Super Bowl.

He collected three tackles, a sack, two pass breakups, and a forced fumble when he put his helmet right on the ball to knock it away from Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert. It wasn’t just a one-game aberration, either, after Pro Football Focus graded Stewart 14th among NFL safeties during the 2015 season.

It really makes you wonder where that player was in Baltimore a year ago.

False start

After Panthers left tackle Michael Oher committed a false start late in the second quarter, you couldn’t help but be amused by the social-media reaction of Ravens fans who had seen that act often in Baltimore.

The 2009 first-round pick deserves much credit for working hard to get his career back on track in Carolina, but Super Bowl 50 was a forgettable performance for him and the rest of the Panthers offensive line.

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Washington's power play goes 0 for 8 in a loss to the hot Florida Panthers.

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Ovechkin-Less Caps Fall to the Panthers

Posted on 02 February 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals have the best power play in the National Hockey League, but on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center, it was the single biggest reason they lost to the Florida Panthers, 5-2, in a game they dominated at even strength.

Coming out of the NHL All Star break the Caps looked strong early on putting lots of shots towards the Florida net, but either Al Montoya (36 saves) stopped the puck or Washington missed the net. Starting at 5:51 of that opening frame, the Panthers would take five penalties to three for the Capitals. That set up a special teams battle and a club that is typically excellent on those occasions was flat out awful in this one. The Caps, without Alexander Ovechkin, who was suspended by the clowns in New York who run the league because he took an All Star Game off due to injury, squandered two five on three opportunities by taking bad offensive zone penalties. Those infractions were both of the lazy and not moving your feet variety.

Just past the 10 minute mark of period one, the Caps turned the puck over in the offensive zone and Jaromir Jagr outworked Brooks Laich for the biscuit in the Washington defensive zone. The long haired freaky person then fed Jonathan Huberdeau, who was parked in the slot between Taylor Chorney and Dmitry Orlov, for an easy one in front of Philipp Grubauer (14 saves).

That goal was the first deflator as Washington had carried the play up to that point, but due to Montoya, some missed quality chances, and a bad back check and defensive zone coverage they trailed, 1-0.

Just over four minutes later, the Panthers would quickly cash in on their five on three power play in easy fashion. It took all of 14 seconds for Nick Bjugstad and Huberdeau to feed Alexsander Barkov for a simple back door goal to make it 2-0.

After 20 minutes, there was still some hope for Washington, but then Grubauer gave up the softest goal allowed by a Caps net minder all season on a bad angle, short side shot to Vincent Trocheck. That made it 3-0 and the air totally came out of the Capitals and the Verizon Center.

Washington would continue to get shots and man advantages, but at the end of 40 minutes, they had eight power plays and no goals. They clearly missed their captain as T.J. Oshie assumed the Ovi position and struggled, failing to get his shot off quickly. Simply put, #77 in that spot was a bad fit.

Huberdeau, who was easily the best player in the game, made it 4-0 on the power play with 4:50 to go in period two to pretty much decide the outcome of this tilt.

The Caps did get two quick early goals in period three with Evgeny Kuznetsov setting up both markers (Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky), but they could get no closer. They have now lost two straight games for the just the second time this season (h/t to the Caps Mike Vogel), but each time one of those losses has been after regulation has ended.

Florida certainly has had the Caps number these last two games. They are big and do a good job of keeping the Capitals on the perimeter. If Washington is to face them in the playoffs, it would have to be in the Eastern Conference Finals, because I don’t see the Cats finishing lower than third in the Atlantic Division. Florida is just too good and with stud 19 year old defensemen Aaron Ekblad in the lineup they’ve won 16 straight games. If Ovechkin had played, the Capitals likely score with the man advantage early and this is probably a different game, but that’s hockey.

Overall for the Caps, there were things to like in this one. They dominated possession outshooting the Panthers 65-30 in shot attempts and 38-19 in shots on goal. But the Capitals have to do a better job of being more physical in front of the Cats goalie. They didn’t get bodies there enough to disrupt Montoya, who was in the zone against Washington, once again.

Andre Burakovsky had another strong outing and he had 10 shots on goal. He easily could have had more than 1 tally.

So the Caps fall to 35-9-4 and will face the New York Islanders on Thursday night at the Verizon Center. Ovechkin will be back and Braden Holtby will get the net. Unfortunately, Marcus Johansson, who was hurt in the Flyers game when suffering an upper body injury, did not practice on Monday so he is doubtful for the Isles game. Jojo is really needed back to fill that third line center role and help carry the puck in on the second power play unit.

But injuries are a part of the game and the Caps need to stop this two game slide and get going. They will now play nearly every other night over the next 68 days so there are no more “we were rusty” excuses.

The grind has begun and the Capitals need to find their rhythm again.

Notes: Brooks Orpik skated on Tuesday and announced that his bone injury, which forced him to stay off of the ice for 8 weeks, is healed up and now he just needs to get in hockey condition. You can expect #44 back in 7 to 14 days…Jay Beagle has been skating and is about two weeks away with his hand injury…John Carlson looked good in his second game back logging 24:17 of ice time…Matt Niskanen, who struggled with the puck and had four shots blocked, led the Caps in ice time with 28:07…Chorney (-1) left the game with the flu and only played 4:34…Washington won the face off battle, 36-33. Backstrom was 14-10…the Caps only had 25 hits in the game (just 5 in the first period, although they had six minutes of power play time)…final special teams totals: Caps 0-8 on the PP in 12:00 and Florida 2-4 in 2:57. There’s your game, folks!

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton greets Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, left, at midfield after a preseason NFL football game in Baltimore, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013. The Panthers defeated the Ravens 34-27. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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Ravens-related thoughts on conference championship weekend

Posted on 25 January 2016 by Luke Jones

The lack of weapons surrounding Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been a major topic of discussion in two of the last three years.

That’s why Cam Newton’s season for the NFC champion Carolina Panthers is nothing short of exceptional. The fifth-year quarterback wasn’t exactly a popular pick to be the league MVP — especially after the Panthers lost No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in August — but he’s done everything he can to silence critics about his play on the field.

To be clear, Newton hasn’t done it alone as he has a Pro Bowl tight end in Greg Olsen and the league’s No. 1 rushing attack — to go along with an excellent defense — but to watch him throw for 35 touchdown passes and a 99.4 passer rating with former first-round bust Ted Ginn Jr., journeyman Jerricho Cotchery, 2014 undrafted free agent Philly Brown, and second-round rookie Devin Funchess as his top four wide receivers?

That’s not exactly a group that instilled fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators.

We’re used to seeing the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers put up impressive passing numbers despite not always having elite talent around them, but Newton deserves the praise he’s receiving as he prepares to play in his first Super Bowl. He’s always been dangerous with his legs — he’s rushed for 500 or more yards in each of his five NFL seasons — but to see his passing prowess take off this season with a less-than-stellar group of receivers is worthy of praise.

This isn’t meant as a knock on Flacco as plenty of good quarterbacks struggle to post big numbers without enough high-end talent around them, but Newton has had a special season.

Blind side surprise

Another reason that Newton has had such a successful year has been the play of Carolina’s offensive line, which includes former Raven Michael Oher playing left tackle.

Oher was mostly solid but still considered a disappointment in Baltimore as a first-round pick in the 2009 draft. The Ole Miss product was even worse with Tennessee in 2014 and was cut just one year after signing a four-year, $20 million contract with the Titans.

So, why the turnaround with the Panthers?

Oher has been reunited with John Matsko, the Ravens’ offensive line coach in his first two NFL seasons. The two share a good relationship, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that Oher has gotten his career back on track working with his old offensive line coach.

According to Pro Football Focus, Oher has graded 32nd among all offensive tackles in the NFL — Eugene Monroe was 22nd and Rick Wagner was 53rd — so it’s not as though he’s suddenly blossomed into a Pro Bowl player in his seventh season. But there’s no doubt that he’s played a key part in transforming what was a poor offensive line in 2014 into one of the better ones in the league.

Orange crush pass rush

The Denver Broncos registered a remarkable 20 quarterback hits on Tom Brady — the most any quarterback had taken in a game all season — over the course of Sunday’s 20-18 win in the AFC championship game.

But even more impressive was the fact that Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips blitzed a season-low 17.2 percent of the time, according to PFF. It certainly helps when you have a special pair of edge rushers like Von Miller — who will be a free agent this offseason — and DeMarcus Ware, but the Broncos’ success was a reminder that you need to be able to disrupt quarterbacks without leaving your pass coverage compromised.

After losing Terrell Suggs in the opener and having already lost Pernell McPhee via free agency, Dean Pees was left with a front unable to generate consistent pressure with a four-man rush for most of the season. As a result, the Ravens defensive coordinator felt compelled to blitz more, which left an underwhelming secondary even more vulnerable in coverage if the pressure didn’t get there in time. It wasn’t until late in the year with the improvement of rookie Za’Darius Smith that Baltimore started to be more disruptive without blitzing.

It’s easier said than done, but the Ravens need to improve their pass rush for 2016 and can’t just hope that the healthy return of Suggs alone will do the trick.

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Former Ravens coordinator Kubiak going to Super Bowl 50

Posted on 24 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Gary Kubiak had every intention of staying with the Ravens until his dream job suddenly opened up.

A year later, the former offensive coordinator is now going to the Super Bowl. A strong effort by his defense led the Denver Broncos to a 20-18 win over New England, giving Kubiak a shot at his first NFL championship as a head coach.

In his only season in Baltimore, Kubiak not only fixed an abysmal running game, but the Ravens set franchise records by scoring 25.6 points per game and producing 364.9 yards per game. After the season-ending playoff loss to New England last January, the 54-year-old declined interview requests from other NFL teams and even issued a statement that he would be staying with the Ravens before the Broncos parted ways with head coach John Fox the next day.

The subsequent call from former teammate and longtime friend John Elway was the “game-changer” for Kubiak, who had previously spent a combined 20 years in Denver as a player and assistant coach. The Ravens hired current offensive coordinator Marc Trestman soon after Kubiak became the head coach in Denver.

Two other ex-Ravens had big days for Denver on Sunday as tight end Owen Daniels caught two touchdown passes from Peyton Manning in the first half and safety Darian Stewart intercepted a Tom Brady pass in Broncos territory in the second quarter. Stewart later left the game with a knee injury, but he told reporters after the AFC championship game that he expected to be ready for Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif. on Feb. 7.

Three other former Ravens will meet Denver in the Super Bowl as Michael Oher, Ed Dickson, and Dwan Edwards were part of Carolina’s dominating 49-15 win over Arizona. While Oher started at left tackle for the Panthers, Edwards had a tackle and a quarterback hit as part of the defensive line rotation and Dickson failed to rein in two passes from quarterback Cam Newton.

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Ravens-related thoughts from divisional round

Posted on 18 January 2016 by Luke Jones

Ravens fans undoubtedly took satisfaction from watching Pittsburgh lose to Denver in the divisional round on Sunday, but you couldn’t help but be in awe of the Steelers’ speed at the wide receiver position.

Playing without arguably the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger still threw for over 300 yards against the Broncos’ top-ranked pass defense thanks to a 154-yard receiving day from Martavis Bryant as well as contributions from the speedy trio of Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Markus Wheaton. Having caught just one pass in the regular season, the rookie Coates caught two passes for 61 yards to show off the speed that Pittsburgh barely even used in 2015 after taking him in the third round out of Auburn.

That collection of speed nearly overcame a depleted running game that was without DeAngelo Williams as Bryant’s 40-yard run in the first quarter helped set up the Steelers’ lone touchdown of the game. Of course, speed isn’t everything — just ask Pittsburgh’s colossal 2014 third-round bust Dri Archer — but you could easily understand why Joe Flacco cited the AFC North rival’s offense when asked at the end of the season whether he believes the Ravens need to add more speed to the passing game.

“You see what speed does. It does a lot for football teams,” Flacco said. “You see what the Steelers are doing with the speed that they’ve added over the last couple years. It definitely makes a difference out there. I’m not saying that it’s something that we need, but when we’ve had it here, it’s definitely made a little bit of a difference. It helps.”

If the Ravens want to close the gap with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the AFC North, they must find more speed at the receiver position in addition to hoping that 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman is fully recovered from the partially-torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that cost him his entire rookie season. Watching the Steelers on Sunday was just a reminder that Baltimore was playing a different game in 2015 with receivers incapable of consistently gaining separation or running away from anyone.

The combination of Kamar Aiken and a returning Steve Smith — Jeremy Butler also showed some promise late in the season — should leave the Ravens in good shape in terms of possession receivers, but general manager Ozzie Newsome needs to find another high-end speed guy to go with the unproven Perriman, whether that player comes via free agency or the draft.

When asked at the season-ending press conference, Newsome made it very clear that he would like to add another receiver or two this offseason. Fans will just hope one will make a substantial impact unlike the late-round picks over the last several drafts who’ve been nothing more than roster filler.

The Ravens have an abundance of No. 5 and No. 6 options, but they need to aim higher when looking for a wide receiver this offseason.

Up-and-down Sunday for ex-Ravens

While former Ravens such as Michael Oher, Ed Dickson, Dwan Edwards, Darian Stewart, and Owen Daniels helped their respective teams move closer to Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, ex-Raven Fitz Toussaint wore the goat horns for the Steelers.

The running back’s fumble with 10 minutes to play not only ended a potential scoring drive, but it was the catalyst for Denver’s only touchdown drive of the game in a 23-16 final. Even as Ravens fans took delight in watching Pittsburgh lose, you couldn’t help but feel for the 2014 rookie free agent from Michigan who was very emotional after the game.

Toussaint has received more postseason carries (31) than regular-season rushing attempts (24) in his first two NFL seasons and had 118 total yards in Pittsburgh’s win over Cincinnati, but Sunday is a day he’ll surely want to forget despite scoring his first NFL touchdown in the first quarter.

Coverage linebackers

It’s almost unfair to compare most linebackers to Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Carolina, but the Ravens need to find a way to improve their pass coverage with that positional group.

Still one of the better coverage linebackers in the league when the Ravens signed him three years ago, Daryl Smith clearly floundered in that department to the point that second-year linebacker Zach Orr was replacing him in the nickel package late in the season. More concerning, however, were the continued struggles of C.J. Mosley in pass coverage in his second season.

After Mosley became the first rookie to make the Pro Bowl in franchise history, many concluded he would be the next great Ravens defensive player, but 2015 didn’t go as smoothly for him. To his credit, the Alabama product overcame a slow start to play better as the season progressed, but he must improve in pass coverage if he’s to take his game from good to great.

Nod to Manning

This item isn’t related to the Ravens, but I find myself becoming an unabashed supporter for Peyton Manning at this late stage of his career.

You don’t have to be an NFL scout to recognize he’s a shell of his former self physically, but he also wasn’t responsible for a number of dropped passes from Broncos receivers that would have made for a very respectable day against Pittsburgh if some had been secured.

We all break down in various ways as we get older — the man underwent multiple neck surgeries in 2011 and still threw an NFL-record 55 touchdown passes and won the MVP two years later at age 37 — but instead of laughing over Manning’s decline, I appreciate seeing one of the greatest players in NFL history trying to use his incomparable football intellect and years of experience to overcome a once-powerful arm that won’t cooperate anymore. After years at the top of the mountain, Manning has strangely become the underdog trying to hold on at the end of his career.

Even if you’re not rooting for him, that fight still deserves respect.

Manning and the Broncos look like the least likely of the four remaining teams to raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara next month, but I’ll be happy for him if he’s somehow still standing in the end — even if everyone will obnoxiously remind you over and over that it was more about Denver’s stout defense than him.

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Steve Smith announces return to Ravens for 2016

Posted on 30 December 2015 by Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Steve Smith will return for his 16th NFL season in 2016.

Though the Ravens wide receiver originally intended to retire at the end of the season, a Achilles tendon injury prompted many to speculate that Smith would return in 2016. Multiple reports in recent weeks had indicated the fiery 36-year-old was leaning toward a return, but he made it official on his Twitter account on Wednesday afternoon.

Smith had cited a desire to spend more time with his family when he announced his retirement plans on Aug. 10.

“I don’t want to hold on,” Smith said. “I said it this summer: Jerry Rice is the best wide receiver to ever play, but I don’t believe that chasing whatever it is to chase for four more years would be conducive to my family or be conducive to me. I would be having to give up something.”

Smith was among the league leaders at the time of his injury on Nov. 1, catching 46 passes for 670 yards and three touchdowns in seven games. With the Ravens off to a 1-6 start, many had speculated that the 5-foot-9, 195-pound receiver was already contemplating a return for 2016 as he has never won a Super Bowl in his career.

Head coach John Harbaugh and many of Smith’s teammates expressed their belief at the time of the injury that he would return for one more season.

Some of his teammates already knew he would be returning.

“I’m not surprised at all about that,” guard Kelechi Osemele said. “He’s not the type of guy to go out like that. Obviously, we can’t wait to have him back. I know he’s going to come back in the best shape of his life, and he’s going to dominate, because that’s just the type of person he is.”

Smith ranks eighth on the NFL’s all-time list for combined yards (18,381), 15th for receptions (961), and 11th for receiving yards (13,932). Smith and recent Hall of Fame inductee Tim Brown are the only players in NFL history to eclipse 13,000 receiving yards and 4,000 return yards.

Originally selected in the third round of the 2001 draft, Smith spent his first 13 seasons with the Carolina Panthers before signing a three-year, $10.5 million contract on March 14, 2014. Though he continues to make his home in Charlotte, N.C. and will be remembered most for what he did with Carolina, Smith has rapidly made his mark in Baltimore both on and off the field.

Now, he’ll have one more year to add to that legacy with the Ravens.

“If you’re in a war, there’s no better guy that you want on your sideline with you in that war than Steve,” five-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda said. “I’m fired up about it, but I respected whatever he was going to do. If he was going to retire, I was going to be happy. If he was going to play for us, I was going to be happy, because he has earned that respect over the years playing in this league.”

Smith is already the oldest receiver in the NFL and will turn 37 in May.

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